This is the first of three posts on this year’s Documenta art exhibition. -Jeff
Documenta opened its doors to the public on June 6th. Documenta —one of the largest contemporary art exhibitions in the world—takes place in Kassel, Germany every five years. This high point of the international art world calendar was initiated in 1955 to heal the scars of the Second World War, largely as a response to the “Degenerate Art” exhibition by NAZI regime. But it also intended to show the open mindedness of western societies and freedom of expression to the rest of the world, specifically the Eastern Bloc. Obviously the world’s political conjuncture has dramatically changed, since then, as has the exhibition.
One of the most interesting aspects of this year’s exhibition was its multifaceted relationship with the idea of nature and the paranormal. Some of the projects sited in Kassel’s Orangerie, Karlsaue Park and the Ottoneum (the natural history museum) offered a distinct approach to engage with matter and living things as an artistic category.
Eighteenth century parks in the English tradition are spread around Europe as idealized slices of nature in urban settings, with Arcadian forests, bridges, small houses and creeks. The bourgeoisie depicted the countryside in a sentimental way, as a response to rapid urbanization. Nature became something to be looked at and leisurely experienced. Parks are highly crafted artificial sites and reflect this modernist ideology. A small army of maintenance workers maintains the ecosystem and botanists carefully manage the flowers and plants. Even wildness is manufactured.
Pierre Huyghe’s “Untitled (2011-12),” one of the most intriguing projects of the exhibition, negotiates with the park itself. When one arrives to the composting area of the park to see Huyghe’s work, they encounter scattered aggregate, asphalt, sand, soil and construction materials. The location registers as peculiar and haphazard. One inevitably wonders if they arrived to the right site, or just a staging areas for park services. But there is no randomness like this in German parks, known for their preciseness. So this oddity resolves itself as you navigate by jumping over the mud and through the little mounts, finally confronting a classic female nude sculpture made of reinforced concrete next to a newly planted tree.
Every sculpture, even the most fragile ones invoke the sense of touch. The possibility of feeling the material, imagining the coldness of stone or the softness of resin, is part of sculptural work. As one approaches Huyghe’s sculpture, they immediately realize that the head is covered with an oval-shaped beehive. The sculpture is alive and elicits horror and excitement as well as disturbed harmony. The uncertainty of the site disappears. A delicate attractiveness in the intricate relationship with the organism and the roughly made concrete structure emerges. It critically invokes the delicate relationship between the artificial and natural.
In order to survive, mankind has to have a mediated relationship with nature. This relationship needs to be maintained synthetically via protective clothing, shelter, tools, refined materials or processed food. Without this, a human simply could not survive. This separates humans from so-called wild animals. In order to survive, the artificial has to encapsulate what is called natural. In fact, any unmediated engagement with pure nature could lead to ecstatic terror. In other words, an artificial barrier is necessary to distance oneself from the horror of nature, and ultimately death.
Everywhere we look in our natural environment, there is a constant reminder of decay, the accumulation of dying organisms and cycles of consumption and reproduction. Unless the so-called natural is subsumed under the artificial, one cannot experience nature as it is. However, this is an impossible, as soon as you capture, modify and preserve nature, the natural disappears under the umbrella of artificial. Perhaps this impossibility appears as a constant reminder of the difficulty of capturing nature with any representational visual regime. That is why Huyghe’s work was so successful as it captures this horror, without being grotesque or falling into any bourgeois phantasmagoria about the natural world. In this work, he allows living organisms to take charge, evolve and grow, and have their own life, but also allows an audience to challenge their assumption about the work of art as distinct from nature, or living/dying things.